Ngrams and Taco Bell

Mission Revival is an architectural style embedded in Southern California’s built environment. The style draws inspiration from the California Missions and can be seen on a variety of buildings: private residences, shopping malls, train stations, and fast-food joints (see: Taco Bell)

Taco_Bell_in_Wausau,_Wisconsin
By Jonrev at en.wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8460990

My proposed project for this class will be to archive, plot on a timeline, and map examples of Mission Revival architecture in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. I believe this project will show how pervasive this style is in Southern California and may lead to insights into when and where the Mission Revival movement was greatest. (Note: if architectural historians have already established these trends, my project will both visualize and make this information easily accessible)

Using Ngrams, I was able to plot the instances of three terms in English language books published from 1800 to 2008. The terms were: “California Missions”, “Mission Revival”, and “Irving Gill” (Irving Gill was an architect who practiced in California and who built some of the earliest examples of Mission Revival style).

This particular Ngram graph shows that the term “California Missions” started to climb after 1880 and peaked in the 1910s. In 1884, the novel Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson was published and may have influenced the increase in printed works that included the term “California Missions” (the popular novel was set in Southern California, post-Mexican-American War, and portrays an idealized version of the Mission system and Mexican California). The upturn of this phrase after 1900 may be due to the building of El Camino Real at the turn of the century. This road was constructed in order to promote tourism in Southern California and was advertised as a true replica of the road that connected the California missions.

While Ngrams is an amazingly powerful tool, we cannot accept the data it presents at face value. For example, in drawing inferences about the reasons for the increased use of “California Missions”, it is poor form to assume that any particular event is an explicit reason for this term to be used more frequently. Correlation does not mean causation.Additionally, more printings of a word or phrase

Additionally, more printings of a word or phrase does not necessarily measure popularity or common use. Note that the term “Mission Revival” shoots up after 1960. If I were to interpret printed instances of “Mission Revival” as a barometer for the popularity of this architectural style, this Ngram would lead me to believe these buildings were frequently built from the 1970s to the mid 2000s. This is not true, the style was most popular at the turn of the 20th century. So, we may interpret this graph as an example of the interest in California architectural history – perhaps the phrase was printed in a variety of guidebooks or works on architecture in Southern California.

Overall, Ngrams is a very entertaining tool and is helpful when you don’t have time to read all the digitized books on Google books. Also, Ngrams can surprise preconceived notions about a topic. For example, I expected the increase in “California Missions” post 1900 because I believed the Southern California booster movement to be the first instance of interest in preserving/ exploiting the Missions for tourism. Seeing the increase from 1850 and a larger jump after 1880 made me remember the impact that Ramona had on California tourism at the turn of the 19th century.

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